When God throws a party, He invites people from far and wide. Jesus said they would come streaming from the north, south, east, and west to sit and eat in God’s kingdom (Luke 13:29). We don’t often think of feasting with God, but when I look at the Old Testament, I see a God who wants to feast with us. Three times a year, thousands of people—sometimes even millions—journeyed to the temple. As they approached, they sang psalms. Fellow Israelites filled the streets, camping and gathering around the temple. The Levitical choirs led prayers and musical worship as children and adults everywhere sang and enjoyed the day. The worship was accentuated by the people’s loud chanting as they bonded with God and one another. When each event was over, faith and joy were kept alive throughout the journey home. The revelers sang hymns and discussed their experiences.
If you think this worship sounds like a block party, you are not far from the truth. How can we bring such enthusiasm and joy back into our lives and communities? Religion has become quite boring. The harder the Church tries to be hip and cool, the more irrelevant it seems to become. While I don’t want a legalistic, ho-hum religion, neither am I seeking mere entertainment through a more relevant experience that looks just like the culture. One thing I know is that God knows how to celebrate. He knows the value of good food, of fellowship, and of worship that commands an atmosphere of rejoicing. God calls it a feast. Wiel Logister notes that “At a feast there is something … brimming over. That is why guests are invited for a feast, why a chair stands ready for the stranger and why expansiveness predominates. Solipsism and individualism are not appropriate for a feast. This very sin is being overcome. And that gives joy, lightness, radiance” (“A Small Theology of Feasting,” in Paulus G. F. Post, ed. Christian Feast and Festival: The Dynamics of Western Liturgy and Culture, 2001, pp.162–63).
We need to recover the joy and radiance in the theology of feast. When our experience with God is woven into a feast, all the senses are engaged. This is why the Israelites were commanded to meet the God who liberated during Passover. They were to experience the God of spirit and truth poured out in abundance at Pentecost. They were to understand the God who renews on the Day of Atonement. Even fasting is declared by God to be a feast. The Israelites met God in mourning and sorrow and feasted in the transformation and intimacy that repentance brought. They were also to meet the God who rejoices in Tabernacles. Deliverance, repentance, and tabernacling with God are themes rich with meaning.
The feasts in the Bible offer much more than antiquated rituals. They communicate values and embody faith. Ritual activities are genuinely appealing and can strike a chord within people to keep worship and faith alive. The goal is not to use trendy music and entertainment to create a nice experience. The proper use of ritual prompts us to think communally, meeting for relationship and restoration in response to what God has achieved. Feasting should be central to our communal life, as it calls God to mind and forms the standard and the foundation of our worship.
What I like about John the Baptist is that he innovatively reimagined the concept of feast. He had a new take on water immersion, adding the prophetic element of repentance to the well-established baptism ritual that was the standard preparation for God. At the Jordon River, he called the people to clear the clutter from their lives and move into deeper repentance. This reflects the things that we have and should already know about but whose significance we often ignore. We tend to overlook ancient traditions that were designed to establish lessons about the character of God. Yet, it’s the rituals that we are most uncomfortable with—communion, foot washing, baptism and fellowship meals—that people most seek today. We don’t think they’re sufficient because we fail to see them in fresh, innovative ways. We may need to be reminded that rituals are opportunities to teach the beautiful dimensions of God’s plan of redemption. My preference is for a springtime communion during Passover and Easter week, similar to that Jesus performed—everyone guided by rituals at a communion table prepared with special foods, fellowshipping and feasting together upon the goodness of God’s redemption.
Just as the church looks to the Lord’s supper to provide meaning and context for celebrating communion, we can explore the concept of feast to reimagine worship as festive. For my intimate family circle, I have incorporated Friday evening candle lighting and unleavened bread hunts (in place of Easter egg hunts), and during the Yom Kippur season, we wrote personal letters to God seeking renewal. We then burnt the letters and buried the ashes outside. This family experience is memorable. What we most likely forget, however, is to feast in our relationships with God. To signify the communicative power of God’s love, we must hear, touch, smell, taste, and see—engaging all our senses in a good feast.
It bothers me when people degrade the festive features of the Old Testament, as these ceremonies focused on Jesus. They were glorious, and we should study them to experience more of Christ’s glory and beauty. Some ridicule them, but doing so denigrates Jesus Himself. I am not advocating feast keeping. I do not think we are expected or required to keep the festivals, but thank God, we are not prohibited from them. We can learn from their beauty and richness. Paul broached this very issue when he instructed his disciples to “let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:16–17, ESV). Theologian Troy Martin argues that “Pauline thought recognizes that this temporal scheme is only a shadow of the reality to come. Nevertheless, worship according to this temporal system is valid even though it is only a shadow of future realities” (Colossians as Response to a Cynic Critique, 1996, p.133).
While Paul noted the absence of ultimate reality in the shadowy system, he argued it was valid for teaching because of its relationship to Christ (2 Timothy 3:16). We are given direction regarding the good things to come when God makes all things new, but we can experience here and now the joy and peace of God’s redemption (Hebrews 10:1). What would you do upon receiving notification that you had inherited a fortune that you could soon access? I think you would celebrate! Likewise, we experience God’s presence and power in the present.
Tragically, the ancient observances were ignored, eventually becoming misunderstood. To be sure, like many of us today in our religiousness and pride, ancient people tended to lack relationship with God. Instead of revealing His character, therefore, their ceremonies shifted toward misrepresenting Him, and soon, the entire system needed rehabilitation. The issue that Paul addressed with the false teachers was not between law and grace but between religious works and the faithfulness of Jesus. Paul did not encourage his disciples to follow religious formulas or perform works of the law as identity markers but directed them to keep the law of Christ, re-centering obedience around the revelation of God in Jesus. We must keep the commandments of God as explained by Jesus. This is a different model of obedience because the faithfulness of Jesus embodies the grace of God found in the law. We should humbly step aside, letting the love of Christ compel us; we are under His law. Our obedience is never about our formality, our religious pride, or our hermeneutical opinions. It is the glory of Jesus and His abundant grace. I want to enjoy my religious life and celebrate the God who abounds in grace and truth. We are commanded to be like Jesus, and we are obligated to love Him with all our heart, soul, and might.
Feasts carry a prophetic perspective that shapes our expectations for the future. History has a direction—a purpose and a goal. From underneath the tapestry, we may not see the complete picture, but viewing it from the perspective of redemption reveals a finely woven tapestry designed to unveil a beautiful God who incorporates us into His redemptive plan. The festive scheme carries the patterns of God’s deliverance. It shows us that only God can provide salvation. It starts and ends with God’s grace, without a single thread of human devising. We celebrate God’s deliverance at the table, and as we feast on unleavened bread and wine, we find that we are delivered through the unfailing life of Jesus, which was given to us so that we might quickly depart the bondage of sin. We cling to the truth that the same God who brings the first fruits from the scorched earth has the power to bring resurrection. In the weeks between Passover and Pentecost, we find God pouring out His love and truth into our hearts. The trumpets that warn us of judgment remind us to make every moment in life precious. They announce the coming King and the hour of His judgment. In the fast of affliction and sorrow, we experience the hungering need for God’s presence in atonement, as we long for the transformation and closeness that repentance brings. In the Feast of Tabernacles, we find that our ultimate destination is not merely a celestial tour but a renewed earth with God eternally dwelling in our midst in a joyous feast.
God invites us to feast with Jesus and others, calling us to habitually “keep the feast” (1 Corinthians 5:8). As we feast on the wonder of who God is, everything else loses luster amid the beauty and brilliance of Jesus. I want a feast-centered ethic that doesn’t miss what God is doing. The Israelites were commanded to feast. Now that the matchless beauty of Jesus has marvelously revealed God, shouldn’t we too pursue feast-centered lives? The world does not seek more rules and regulations to follow, but neither does it seek a “cooler” Jesus. The world seeks a better Jesus, a more glorious Jesus. When experiencing the joy of being welcomed to His table, the hearts of the old and young alike will radiate with bliss. This invitation is an expression of God’s will that we receive one blessing after another. Jesus calls us to the feast of the Kingdom of God. Do you want to find Jesus? May I suggest that you seek Him at the great feast? It’s time for this everlasting feast to begin, so let’s start celebrating!
Craig Ashton Jr.